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Page history last edited by Jay Wood 10 years, 3 months ago


by Jay Wood


Image 1: a bust of Pericles


Pericles was a popular leader in Athens as well as an influential military figure in the Peloponnesian and Persian Wars. He is remembered both as a great statesman--one who defended the lower class and invested heavily in infrastructure, art and culture--and also as an eloquent and persuasive public speaker, responsible for several famous orations, including the oft-referenced "Funeral Oration."



Early Life:


Pericles was born to the tribe of Acamantis in the Cholargus deme. He was the descendant of great military leaders. His father, Xanthippus, commanded the navy during the 479 BC Battle of Mycale in the Greco-Persian Wars, in which the Athenians were victorious. His mother came from a noble family, the Alcmaeonidae, which included the prominent military leader Cleisthenes.


His education came at the hands of several notable teachers, including Greek philosophers Zeno and Anaxagoras. Coupled with his studies with Damon, a music teacher who Plutarch describes as a "consummate sophist," Pericles was thus trained in both the philosophical and the rhetorical tradition (Pericles, 3.1, 4.1-5.1). Despite his ability to speak publicly, he did not speak often after taking public office, preferring to save orations for particularly important occasions.



Political Career:


His initial entry into politics likely began in the early 470s BC, but the most significant political move of his early career occurred in 463 BC with his role in the prosecution of the conservative leader Cimon. Cimon was on trial for failing to protect Athenian interests in Macedon. Although Pericles failed to win the conviction, this proved to be the beginning of the end for Cimon and the conservative party. Two years later, Pericles successfully ostracized Cimon on the grounds that the latter had secretly supported Sparta.


Pericles later helped to better Athens' relation with neighboring city-states, especially during 438-436 BC, when he led an expedition into Pontus (modern day Turkey). Despite his military prowess, however, he is perhaps better known for his domestic works. Pericles championed democracy, attempting to help the poor and to partially redistribute wealth. To that end, he enacted legislation that would allow lower classes to participate in culture and politics. For example, one of his early decrees allowed the poor to attend the theatre without paying (making provision for the city to foot the bill).


Not only did he help to increase access for the poor to the existing political and cultural institutions, he also helped to expand those institutions. The construction of the Parthenon and Odeum (theatre), for example, occur during his tenure. More generally, he is recognized as playing a major role in the rise in literature and art in Athens.



Image 2: Pericles visiting the Parthenon during its construction.



Rhetorical Legacy


Pericles enjoyed a reputation as a great speaker, in the eyes of both his allies and his opponents. According to legend, when asked which one of them was the superior fighter, his political opponent Thucydides (not to be confused with the historian Thucydides cited here) quickly replied that Pericles was, because even when publicly defeated, Pericles could convince an audience that he had in fact won. In Gorgias, Socrates claims to have been awestruck by the power that Pericles' words had over the Athenians (even though Socrates is clearly no fan of Pericles in the context of this dialogue). Among his more sympathetic readers, Plutarch describes Pericles' as the best speaker of his age, noting that "he far excelled all other speakers" (Pericles 8.1).


Due in part to his education in philosophy and his introverted childhood, Pericles was calm and even-keeled in his orations, and he rarely displayed emotional outbursts. While there is no question that his style was refined and eloquent, there is debate as to what this style reveals. According to some, including Plutarch, his style resulted from his being well educated, and showed no signs of contempt or arrogance: "being gradually filled full of the so-called higher philosophy and elevated speculation, he...had a spirit that was solemn and a discourse that was lofty and free from plebeian and reckless effrontery" (Pericles 5.1). Others, however, including the poet Ion, found in Pericles' style signs of arrogance and haughtiness (see Pericles, 5.3).


One of the most significant moments of his career for modern students of rhetoric is his "Funeral Oration," delivered in honor of the dead after the first year of the Peloponnesian War. While we don't have a verbatim transcript of the speech, we do have a detailed account of it in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. This speech is still cited as an exemplary oration. In fact, it may have served as a model for Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" (see Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg).


Despite the mixed reception of Pericles throughout the generations, there is no doubt that he was highly influential figure in both Greek history and in the history of rhetoric. As Plutarch remarked of him,


he proved that rhetoric, or the art of speaking, is, to use Plato's words, ‘an enchantment of the soul,’ and that her chiefest business is a careful study of the affections and passions, which are, so to speak, strings and stops of the soul, requiring a very judicious fingering and striking (Pericles 15.4).








Fornara, Charles W., and Samons, Loren J. Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles. (Berkeley: University of California Press  1991).


Gill, N.S. "The Age of Pericles: Periclean Athens." in "Ancient/Classical History" on about.com (http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/greeceancientgreece/a/ClassicalGreece.htm, accessed 11/26/13).


Plato. Phaedrus. Robin Wakefield, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002).


Plato. Gorgias. Donald Zeyl, trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett 1987).


Plato. Alcibiades 1. W.R.M. Lamb, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1955).


Plutarch. Pericles. In Plutarch's Lives. Bernadotte Perrin, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1916).


Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. In The English works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. Thomas Hobbes, trans. (London: Bohn 1843).


Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg (New York: Simon and Schuster 1992).






Pericles bust: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pericles_Pio-Clementino_Inv269_n2.jpg


Painting: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3e/1868_Lawrence_Alma-Tadema_-_Phidias_Showing_the_Frieze_of_the_Parthenon_to_his_Friends.jpg


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